With the holidays here and gift giving on everyone's mind, it's time to talk about the thing that personal computers do best.
The PC is the greatest toy since the Slinky. Your computer can put you in the cockpit of an F-16, behind the wheel of a Maserati, in a cave full of garlic-breathing monsters, or smack in the middle of a Kung Fu free-for-all.
With your PC, you can run a city, build a railroad, topple governments, conquer Europe, play chess with a grand master, prowl the singles bars, decimate the Klingon star fleet or fight the Civil War again.
The newest games and simulations are amazingly sophisticated. They can keep you happily occupied for weeks or months. They may also require some computing horsepower. If you have an older, IBM XT-style computer, be careful what you buy. The really hot issues require an AT-style machine with an 80286 processor. You may also need a high-resolution color monitor and a lot of hard disk space.
Although you don't need a sound board to run these programs, most new releases will take advantage of Ad Lib, Sound Blaster, Tandy and Roland audio devices. These add-on circuit cards (standard equipment on many Tandy machines) start at $100 and can add real excitement.
Most PC games are not expensive. In fact, they're often cheaper than Nintendo games and offer much more for the money. The programs I've included generally have list prices of $30 to $70. But nobody pays list. Bargain software houses and computer retailers frequently sell games at 25 to 50 percent discounts. Last year's games may be discounted even more.
Here are some of the best releases I've seen this year, along with some favorites from years past:
For younger children
PTC Parents with a computer and a child under the age of 5 might be determined to make their investment turn junior into a preschool genius. Not surprisingly, most software for this age group falls into the "educational game" category.
My vote for most original preschool program is The Playroom, from Broderbund software. It combines all sorts of preschool activities in one beautifully designed package that encourages a child to explore at his or her own pace.
Mickey's ABC's, Mickey's 123's, Mickey's Colors & Shapes, Donald's Alphabet Chase, Mickey's Runaway Zoo and Goofy's Railway Express are spiffy, inexpensive new releases from Disney software. They have the beautiful animation and graphics you'd expect from the world's foremost entertainment factory.
The Disney offerings support a new $35 gadget called the Sound Source, which plugs into your printer port and adds digitized music and voice to the programs. It's not as good as an internal sound board, but it's a lot cheaper and easier to install. It's fine for kids.
For young readers
Super Solvers' Treasure Mountain, from The Learning Company, a beautiful fit for early readers. It pits the youngster against the Master of Mischief, who has stolen the magic goodies from Treasure Mountain. The graphics are beautiful, and the kids will have to solve simple word and logic puzzles to succeed. This one got an "awesome" rating from my 8-year-old.
For older kids (10 and up) the same series includes Challenge of the Ancient Empires. In fact, it's hard to go wrong with any of the Learning Company's programs, which include classics such as Reader Rabbit, Math Rabbit and The Children's Writing and Publishing Center.
A big hit around our house this year is Disney's Duck Tales, based on the popular cartoon series of the same name. A little education, plenty of nonviolent action and some real animation make this game a winner, even if you're a bit put off by Scrooge's 1980's style greed.
You also can't miss with Broderbund's Carmen Sandiego series. Your kids will chase Carmen and her gang of international thieves across the U.S.A., around the world, or through time. They have to look stuff up in books to do it, and they love it.
The latest effort, a new Deluxe version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? requires a VGA color monitor and an AT-style computer, but its digitized National Geographic photographs are breathtaking.
Another Broderbund's offering, Galleons of Glory, lets you re-create Magellan's famous voyage around the world. It's entertaining, educational and challenging.
Pirates, from MicroProse Software, is a superb action-adventure that puts you in command of a privateer roaming the Spanish Main. You'll need brains and reflexes to win fame and fortune. My older son and his friends have been playing Pirates for two years, a testament to its staying power.
Pirates' more sophisticated successor, Sword of the Samurai, brings even richer detail to an adventure set in feudal Japan. Besides being great fun, these two games are probably more educational than most so-called educational programs.
Youngsters will also enjoy North and South, a French import from Data East that offers a bizarre but absorbing and accessible view of Civil War strategy. Lots of cavalry charges and lively battles here.